By Abdullah Alaoudh
Feb. 13, 2019
Despite the claims of Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his enablers, Saudi Arabia is not rolling back the hard-line religious establishment. Instead, the kingdom is curtailing the voices of moderation that have historically combated extremism. Numerous Saudi activists, scholars and thinkers who have sought reform and opposed the forces of extremism and patriarchy have been arrested. Many of them face the death penalty.
Salman Alodah, my father, is a 61-year-old scholar of Islamic law in Saudi Arabia, a reformist who argued for greater respect for human rights within Shariah, the legal code of Islam based on the Quran. His voice was heard widely, partly owing to his popularity as a public figure with 14 million followers on Twitter.
On Sept. 10, 2017, my father, who was disturbed by regional tensions after Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar, spoke obliquely about the conflict and expressed his desire for reconciliation. “May Allah mend their hearts for the best of their peoples,” he tweeted.
A few hours after his tweet, a team from the Saudi security services came to our house in Riyadh, searched the house, confiscated some laptops and took my father away.
The Saudi government was apparently angered and considered his tweet a criminal violation. His interrogators told my father that his assuming a neutral position on the Saudi-Qatar crisis and failing to stand with the Saudi government was a crime.
He is being held in solitary confinement in Dhahban prison in Jidda. He was chained and handcuffed for months inside his cell, deprived of sleep and medical help and repeatedly interrogated throughout the day and night. His deteriorating health — high blood pressure and cholesterol that he developed in prison — was ignored until he had to be hospitalized. Until the trial, about a year after his arrest, he was denied access to lawyers.
On Sept. 4, a specialized criminal court in Riyadh convened off-camera to consider the numerous charges against my father: stirring public discord and inciting people against the ruler, calling for change in government and supporting Arab revolutions by focusing on arbitrary detention and freedom of speech, possessing banned books and describing the Saudi government as a tyranny. The kingdom’s attorney general sought the death penalty for him.
Saudi Arabia has exploited the general indifference of the West toward its internal politics and presented the crackdown against reformist figures like my father as a move against the conservative religious establishment. The reality is far from their claims.
My father is loved by the Saudi people because his authority and legitimacy as an independent Muslim scholar set him apart from the state-appointed scholars. Using Islamic principles to support his arguments, he championed civil liberties, participatory politics, the separation of powers and judicial independence.
For almost two decades, he has vocally led the campaign against terrorism in Saudi Arabia. He has called for renewing religious discourse and argued for moderate Islam. I wonder whether he was arrested because of his popular, progressive stances, because since the ascent of Prince Mohammed bin Salman, nobody else is allowed to be seen as a “reformer.”
While reformers like my father sit in prisons, Saudi Arabia has embraced hard-liners like Saleh al-Fouzan, an influential state-sponsored cleric and a member of the Council of Senior Scholars. In 2013, Mr. al-Fouzan denounced a future where women would drive and claimed that the Shia and other Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi beliefs are infidels and that anyone who disagrees with that interpretation is an infidel. He has also pronounced all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants forbidden because they strike him as akin to gambling, which is banned in Islam.
In August, Mr. al-Fouzan was seated between King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Prince Mohammed at the royal court to signal his authority and importance. A few months earlier, during a meeting, the crown prince told Mr. al-Fouzan, “You are like my father.” In September, Mr. al-Fouzan issued a fatwa urging the state to kill political dissidents who promote sedition against the ruler. A month later, my friend Jamal Khashoggi was murdered.
In such a culture of fear, there is little hope for justice. The judiciary is being pushed far from any semblance of the rule of law and due process.
Even some judges from the specialized criminal court, which is trying my father, have themselves been detained after they declined to impose harsh penalties recommended by the attorney general in certain cases. A judge told me that judges recently appointed to the specialized criminal court live with fear.
Yet there are some judges in Saudi Arabia who have not submitted to the total control the monarchy seeks. In 2013, around 200 judges signed a public petition calling for real legal and judicial reforms, and condemned the “overwhelming crackdown and suppression of the real and patriotic voices.” They wanted the independence of the judiciary.
Those judges were intimidated, and some were referred for investigation by the Saudi Ministry of Justice. Muhammad al-Issa, the minister of justice at the time, promised a “corrective campaign” that would rid the judiciary of these “corrupted judges.” Two judges were fired and the rest quietly resumed their work.
On Feb. 3, the Saudi government postponed my father’s trial for the third time without explanation and continues to keep him in prison. My family has been incessantly harassed since his arrest; 17 members of my family are barred from travel, including children; our house and my personal library were searched without warrant; my uncle was arrested after tweeting about the incident; and my assets have been frozen without justification.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi demolished the myth of a reforming crown prince running Saudi Arabia. But the world needs to raise its voice to support the Saudis actually fighting for reform — people like Salman Alodah, my father, for whom the Saudi attorney general has sought the death penalty.
Mr. Alaoudh is a legal scholar at Georgetown University.